So I’ve been rereading Jane Austen and I have been completely absorbed in her writing. I am on Emma now, and just finished Persuasion. Jane Austen is known for the elegance of her language, her precise understanding of human nature, and her ability to pinpoint the foibles and motives of the society in which she moved. What people don’t talk about is how she captures universals of the middle class, in particular, parenting.
Children in Persuasion and Emma are present and accounted for, and their parents are depicted with an exactness that is as neat and accurate as Austen depicted her young romantic lovers. Check out how the two little boys in Persuasion behave and most importantly, how the grownups of the novel interact with them. There’s some bad parenting in Persuasion, and believe me, we’ve seen the same type of thing at the park, in schools, and on Nanny 911. The domestic scenes in the later Austen are fascinating, precisely because she has moved away from her first concerns, of writing about love, and toward more of a roman a clef. She knows these people, these families, so well. I love Pride & Prejudice the best of all of Austen’s books, but I think Persuasion is her best-written novel.
There’s a great scene in Emma, in which Emma is speaking to her brother in law after agreeing to take his sons for a visit. Basically, the brother in law tells her, you have Isabella’s letter giving you instructions, probably way more than you need, my instructions are more succinct — don’t spoil them and don’t give them medicine. This is totally modern! And of the parents among us reading this, who hasn’t written that same kind of letter for the babysitter, or received it?
The secret of Austen’s popularity is that in capturing the upper-class British family, she writes about people who are very like the middle-class American family. Sure, we don’t bow when we meet someone, our manners are pretty much appalling, and if I had to figure out who walked into a room first I would probably go nuts, but the relationships she depicts are very typical of my relationships with friends and family. Emma Woodhouse makes me want to shake sense into her, and her rival Mrs. Elton is an insane bitch (and just enough like Emma that we know why Emma cannot stand her), but I know and have worked with (and socialized with) women remarkably like them. Also, I love that Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father, is so beautifully, marvellously, OCD.
That’s what I love about Jane Austen. That’s why she will never go out of style. If she were alive today, she would hardly have to change a word. She gets us! She really gets us!